American Utopia review: David Byrne starts making sense | Stage

More than a concert and less than a musical, a one-man show with a full backing band, American Utopia brings David Byrne – gray-haired, gray-suited, barefoot, magnificent – to Broadway. A loose agglomeration of songs, sometimes linked by brief monologues and get-out-the-vote exhortations, it is both an introduction to Byrne’s particular psychology and catalogue and an oblique consideration of America today and how it might be bettered. Resistance is musical.

The show curtain is designed by Maira Kalman. When it disappears, the stage is bare except for Byrne, seated at a table and holding a brain. As he sings Here, the final track on his recent solo album, also called American Utopia, a back-up singer (Chris Giarmo) enters, then another (Tendayi Kuumba), a bassist (Bobby Wooten III, a pocket sun) follows, a guitarist (Angie Swan, sharkskin cool), percussionists and soon the stage is thronged with bodies, all in gray suits, all barefoot.

Mounds of metal rise and become a shimmering curtain while the lyrics explore neural connection: “Here is an area of great confusion/ Here is a section that’s extremely precise/ And here is an area that needs attention/ Here is a connection with the opposite side.” The noise is very joyful.

Sometimes Byrne speaks between songs, sometimes he doesn’t, sometimes he takes up a guitar, sometimes he simply sings. There is no director but Alex Timbers, who collaborated with Byrne on the thrilling Here Lies Love and the mortifying Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, is listed as a production consultant.

Byrne’s voice has never been particularly flexible, but it remains forceful. His presence has become more avuncular, less alien, like the ringmaster of an extremely well-behaved circus. He and the band perform Annie-B Parson’s angular, energetic choreography, some of it adapted from Byrne’s concert moves. The lighting, by Rob Sinclair, moves from white to red to blue.

The songs are fascinated by the furniture of adult life – a job, a girlfriend, a house, a car – while standing slightly apart from it. The monologues explore Byrne’s slight alienation from these things – “Me, I just observe and pay attention and watch,” he says – moving gradually into more political concerns.

There’s no arc to the show, no narrative, though any of the monologues center on the idea of connection. Connection doesn’t come naturally to Byrne, who has discussed his autism. With his gentlemanly remove, it’s not always clear what Byrne wants from the audience (attention, common cause) or what the audience wants from him, besides the hits.

A little more than halfway through the evening, Byrne reminds everyone that they have permission to dance as long as the aisles remain clear. At a preview, when the musicians began noodling the Burning Down the House intro, nearly every foot was leapt to. But during the next song, a cover of Janelle Monae’s protest anthem Hell You Talmabout, a call-and-response was initiated, with spectators asked to repeat the names of black Americans killed by the police or in acts of racial violence – Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Atatiana Jefferson. Few answered.

The word utopia can mean “good place” or it can mean “no place”. American Utopia somehow embraces both etymologies. Onstage it incarnates a very good place, welcoming, communal, in harmony. But can that place find purchase in the larger world? Maybe not in this lifetime.

Byrne quotes James Baldwin: “I still believe we can do with this country something that has not been done before.” And in the jubilant encore song, Byrne sings, as the musicians march around the stage, about the city in his mind.

“Would you like to come along,” he asks. “You can help me sing the song.” But would they really help? And that song? It’s Road to Nowhere.

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